The Changing Character of May Day in the US and Heterogeneous-Populist Movement Forms

by John B. Cannon

May 3, 2013

I am fascinated by holidays, how they are received, and how that changes over time. I suppose my interest lies at kind of a juncture of cultural studies and something you might call political theology. I first developed this interest in El Salvador, where I lived in 1997. There, the use of a calendar of holidays both Catholic and secular, broadly recognized in society and contested, was used there as something of a starting point for ongoing cultural / political debate. I suppose that happens in the US too to some extent; I notice it a lot more now, with the existence of social media, than I did before. But in El Salvador the layering of a liturgical calendar and a secular calendar was much more obvious. I suppose my starting place is that holidays always have something of a liturgical character – there are words we are supposed to say and actions we are supposed to perform. And those liturgies are contestable, either in whole or in part: we should celebrate it like this, not like that, or not at all.

May Day in the US is a very interesting example. What follows is anecdotal and impressionistic, so I’d be interested if anybody has arguments to the contrary. 10 years ago, hardly anyone celebrated it except for lefties – and not even a lot of lefties, but the real history buffs, a population that overlapped with membership in the IWW and CPUSA quite a bit. I remember in student activist, union organizing, community organizing, and to my memory even soft/post Trotskyist scenes, talking about May Day would cause most people in the room to roll their eyes. May Day was a day for a few historically minded anarchists to try to do something, the CP to have a barbecue, and everybody else to carry on with whatever.

The Day without an Immigrant in 2006, which Wikipedia informs me was also called the Great American Boycott and a couple of other names, was the fundamental turning point. Immigrants, many drawing upon May Day traditions in their countries of origin, in which May Day is Labor Day or International Workers Day, organized a day of action, and for the next several years, May Day was reborn as a day of action for immigrant rights.

A side effect of this seems to have been a refurbishing of the cachet of May Day in left activist circles of all sorts. I couldn’t prove this, but the refurbishing of communism as an idea in communization circles and the student movement of 2009-10 may have taken it up from a different side. And perhaps Occupy refurbished it too, though Occupy didn’t exist on May Day 2011 and was nearly gone by May Day 2012. So if Occupy refurbished it, it was not the literal movement activity of Occupy – the encampments, the actions – but a broader change in public thinking and feeling that were occasioned by Occupy.

Today it seems that most of the actions organized on May Day in the US have to do with immigrant rights – and this is more the case this year than it was last year, where immigrant rights groups and parts of Occupy tussled over having permitted / non-permitted actions in Oakland (and possibly a couple of other cities?). The actions this year seem relatively small (again, in the US). But the rhetoric around May Day this year, at least what I’ve been seeing discussed, is not mostly about immigrant rights; nor is it explicitly anarchist or communization-oriented, though of course people who are into those things are posting about those things. Instead, it seems to be a fairly broad heterogeneous-populist* broad left message, much as the message of Occupy was broad and heterogeneous in this way. On May Day, it seems as though the broad substrate of mass sentiment that existed during Occupy hasn’t really gone anywhere.

An interesting example of this: I’ve seen a bunch of people criticizing Obama for issuing his Loyalty Day proclamation. Evidently in California it is also Law Day. The thing is, May 1 has been celebrated as Loyalty Day / Law Day for a hell of a long time. Apparently the president has been issuing a proclamation for it every year since 1958. It is a horribly craven, messed up tradition, and I’m glad people are challenging it. But it is interesting that the chorus of challenges seems to be much higher this year than in previous years. This year, people seem to be saying: no, it’s May Day, what the hell, Obama? This holiday is about workers rights, and your signing a Loyalty Day proclamation shows just how anti-worker you are. I’m sure a lot of us thought stuff like that in previous years, but we were just too tired to say it. We felt more inclined to barbecue or watch old movies about when May Day mattered. It’s interesting that it feels like it matters this year, even though nothing especially momentous is happening on the streets.

A quick note on heterogeneous-populist forms: I know that many people will bristle at characterizing these movements as “populist” on the level of broad sentiment which identified with them, but I do not think “populism” is necessarily reducible to its majoritarian, electoral forms, much less the kinds of majority-race, right-wing “populisms” we saw in the 90s. It seems to me – and this is an idea that needs to be developed at much greater length elsewhere – that what we have been seeing develop in the past 15-20 years in left-oriented social movements at least in the US hearkens back in some ways to heterogeneous, spasmodic, populist, but often minoritarian forms of the 1870s-1890s – and here I’m thinking of the organizing and direct action “populism” that happened in this period, maybe even moreso in Europe than in the US, rather than the People’s Party or the Greenbacks or whatever. This would be one way to think about the Global Justice Movement, immigrant rights, the 2009-2010 student movement, and Occupy: as episodic “street” high points which are related in some way to a broader public sentiment which has kept going and been kindled by these moments.

Revolutionary and reformist poles do not appear opposed to one another within this arena with the same kind of fixity they had in left movements of the 20th century. Of course people identify as revolutionaries and as reformists and have critiques of one another, but the critiques often lack any lasting programmatic, let alone sociological, coherence. This partly has to do with the lack of coherent programs of either sort, reformist or revolutionary. Reformist programs tend to call for a return to Keynesianism, in a context which lacks both the material basis for and the political blocs which articulated Keynesianism. Revolutionaries are struggling with questions of how to organize, beyond celebrating episodic upsurges, hoping for a mass radicalization based on spreading enthusiasm on the streets and disgust at police repression, tailing reformism, or replicating bureaucratic, uninspiring forms of organization. Underlying this: movements of the 20th century were often based around strong union movements or a working class who had been radicalized in union struggles. In the US today, the unionization rate has returned to pre-CIO levels, and pockets of militant struggles have not been sustained enough to produce anything like a radicalized layer of the class.

Contemporary struggles and movements have a more “populist” shape, as opposed to the rather fixed social-democratic and Leninist revolutionary forms that dominated much of the 20th century. But this populism is not homogenous in any direction. It includes minoritarian struggles as well as ones which are construed as majoritarian. It includes revolutionary and insurrectionary impulses as well as impulses to reform the definition of corporate personhood, achieve a slightly more livable immigration law, reform the banking system and the WTO. Its episodic nature also contributes to this heterogeneity; social groups and tactics which are all the rage one minute can be sidelined or forgotten the next. One moment hope waxes, and it seems that we are in an era of possible deep change; quickly this hope wanes, and the only deep change afoot seems to be environmental destruction, ever-deeper forms of austerity, and increasing commodification of the means of life.

A lot of what I’m saying here is obviously not new, but thinking around questions that a lot of people are asking. Heterogeneous populism may be a somewhat different way of framing it. I should also make clear that my identifying these different poles as extant poles within a broad movement sentiment doesn’t mean that revolutionarily inclined populists and legal reform oriented populists should just like each other and get along because they are part of the same movement or the same broad category of sentiment. Sharp debate can be good, and to be clear, some ideas are just awful or not worth pursuing given the current balance of power.

I do think there is an implication here, though, that we are kind of stuck with each other in this heterogeneous-populist boat in some sense for a foreseeable mid-term future. Our ideas don’t make that much sense without reference to each other. Revolutionary parties which are close to the sect form are not going to tend to be very vibrant in this time period; or they will become more vibrant to the extent that they become a more incoherent combination of their sect form and an open engagement with the broader, populist milieu. This incoherence will be their knife’s edge. Anarchists and left communists walk a similar if less stark line between organizing their own activities and salting broader movements. On the other hand, it’s not clear that NGOs and the program of global, green Keynesianism can accomplish much without reference to these episodic movements which oftentimes are organized around a vision of the world which goes well beyond their own bounds and ambitions.

There will be efforts and impulses to separate off from the populist morass and clarify our politics, and these efforts may play a key role in developing at minimum a new round of tactics; at maximum, a strategic, organizing orientation that could outlast the next burst of tactical fetishism. These efforts will always be partial to the extent that no objective movement in the world-historic sense can clearly be seen to be unfolding. So, it will probably be better to draw the lines of separation in pencil, or whatever the 21st century equivalent may be.

P.S. There’s a related question about whether and how US forms will be influenced by other developments around the world, which developments will hold the most resonance for us, how that will resound, etc. The political development of US movements is obviously not cordoned off, since all four of the movements I mentioned above, the Global Justice Movement, immigrants rights, the student movement of 2009-10, and Occupy were transnational in some way. The GJM, student movement, and Occupy could all be described as US-specific aspects of a broader, cross-national movement or political meme. While the immigrant rights movement has been a little more nationally specific in its para-legislative conditions, immigrants political traditions and experiences from elsewhere have figured heavily into the organizing. It would be easy to imagine that another movement / situation will arise where a particular political conflict / crisis in the US will intersect with the popularity of a meme or fetishized tactic or resurgent confidence in an idea which has a multi-national character. But beyond this, it would be necessary to look at international developments in much more depth.

  • Zot Lynn Szurgot says:

    Around here it was Occupy that refurbished it, and yes, the literal movement activity of Occupy, and Occupy organizers (with a few Wobblies too), the same local individuals and the same processes. It was also the local Occupy who arranged for the Light Brigade actions that lit up the MayDay messages So, though our movement activity is no longer encampments, please don’t go calling Occupy dead, or speaking of it in the past tense, as Occupy Gainesville (and many others) are very much alive, and are behind the lovely liveliness of MayDay that you are so right to enjoy.

  • James Miller says:

    Thanks, it was not the literal movement activity of Occupy – the encampments, the actions – however a broader amendment publicly thinking

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